Napoleon, the dark side > The human cost of the Napoleonic wars (< 3 min. read)

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“Napoleon, the dark side” is a section that uses the most recent research and offers you a clear, precise, and synthetic analysis of some of the more contraversial moments of Napoleonic history.

Napoleon, the dark side > The human cost of the Napoleonic wars (< 3 min. read)

The image of the “Corsican Ogre” emerged within the context of opposition to the Empire and became established on the European continent from 1813, and only to grow every greater. Before this date, Napoleon victorious had attracted little criticism in Europe in terms of conscription and human losses. The negative image of Napoleon and his regime crystallised with the difficult campaigns at the end of the Empire and left a deep impression on French society.

The drawing up then of a human profit-and-loss sheet for the Napoleonic Wars today is a complex business due to the large number of primary sources. Even though these have now become more accessible thanks to new technologies, their exploitation by contemporaries has become paradoxically more difficult.

In the early years of the Restoration, a huge variety of totals, tinged with partisanship, were put forward. The first relatively serious assessment was made in the 1830s by Hargenvilliers, head of the conscription division during the Empire. In his report to the Chambre des Pairs, he estimated France’s military losses for the period 1804-1815 at 1.7 million. For a long time, this figure was widely accepted. It was taken up by the academician Hippolyte Taine who increased it by 2 million European soldiers.

For France alone, this estimate would imply that almost all of the men mobilised during the period, about 2.2 million men from 1800 to 1815, perished, leaving only 500,000 survivors. Gaston Bodart in 1916,(1) and then Albert Meynier in 1930,(2) felt that this assessment was overestimated. They established a total loss of between 800,000 and 1 million dead and missing. This assessment was supported by historical demographic studies, in particular those of Jacques Houdaille.(3) To establish his estimate, Houdaille used the army’s matriculation registers. These archives record, by regiment, each man mobilised and their destiny. Houdaille proceeded by sampling at a scale of 1:500 in the 3 million or so registers. This method enabled him to obtain fairly reliable results which, today, are widely accepted:

  • 439,000 soldiers and officers from France died in combat or in hospital;
  • The number of 706,000 corresponds to uncertain losses (prisoners, missing presumed dead, deserters, etc.) whose real situation was not recorded. Houdaille estimates that 300,000 to 350,000 men returned to their homes after 1815, without the military administration recording them;
  • The number of 900,000 to 1,000,000 killed would therefore constitute the balance of 15 years of conflict. An average of nearly 75,000 killed per year can be established, noting that the years 1812-1814 were the most deadly, with nearly 50% of the losses.(4)

The down-scaled estimate is confirmed by smaller scale studies such as the battles studied by Danielle and Bernard Quintin following Houdaille’s method. They thus established the losses of the battle of Eylau at between 4,000 and 4,200 killed, as opposed to the 5,000 to 10,000 traditionally accepted.(5)

These figures reveal above all the deficiency of the medical services rather than the harshness of the fighting. A minority of the men died on the battlefield, while the vast majority died in hospital as a result of their wounds or illness. The medical service, although very inadequate, was however partly able to do its job. Napoleon tried as far as possible to meet the requests of the surgeons Larrey and Percy, or of the Chief Medical Officer of the Grande Armée, Desgenettes, who improved medical services in war time through their daily practices.

For the allied armies, their total losses appear to be higher. The totals range from 1 million to over 2.5 million. An estimate of the average losses could be set at around 2 million. According to Alexander Mikaberize,(6) the Russians lost 500,000 men, the Prussians, Germans and Austrians 500,000, the Poles and Italians 200,000, the Spanish and Portuguese 700,000, and the British 300,000 (including losses in India). For the campaigns of 1813 and 1814 alone, nearly 726,000 European soldiers were killed in 12 months of campaigning.

It is almost impossible to put a figure on the number of civilians who lost their lives because of the wars. In Calabria, Spain or Russia, the population was only drawn into the war when they took up arms against the French army. For Napoleon and his contemporaries, war was fought between states, and therefore between soldiers. In fact, the interference of civilians in the war was sometimes harshly repressed, leading the Spanish conflict in particular to a spiral of unprecedented violence. Very much a matter of national collective memory in Spain, the latest assessments tend to underestimate the losses linked to the conflict that lasted from 1808 to 1814. The latest studies put the number of civilians killed at between 215,000 and 375,000 out of a population of 12 million, i.e. between 2.4 and 4.2 % of the population. This figure would be lower than the deaths from famine or epidemics, which caused the death of 350,000 to 500,000 people before 1808.(7) Despite the 15 years of conflict and the deaths caused, the Napoleonic period resulted in a significant demographic increase in Spain, and in Europe.

Research and work in progress could change the French assessment of these 15 years of conflict. For the military and political leader that Napoleon was, soldiers were one of the parameters of the war to be managed. Napoleon can probably be criticised for not having prioritised it over all the others, but not for not having taken it into account. He was indeed a humane leader and did not have the coldness that is usually attributed to him. In the countries of Europe outside France, the polemics on the losses touched the public opinion less because at the end of the war they were victorious, which Napoleon was not.

(1) G. Bodart, Losses of life in modern wars, Oxford, At the Clarendon Press, 1916.
(2) A. Meynier, “Levées et pertes d’hommes sous le Consulat et l’Empire”, Revue des Études napoléoniennes, 30, janv-juin 1930, p. 26-51
(3) J. Houdaille, “Pertes de l’armée de terre sous le Premier Empire, d’après les registres matricules”, in Populations, 1972, 27-1, p. 27-50.
(4) H. Drevillon, L’individu et la Guerre, Paris, Belin, 2013, p. 178-186.
(5) D. et B. Quintin, La tragédie d’Eylau, 7 et 8 février 1807, Paris, Archives et culture, 2006.
(6) A. Mikaberize, The Napoleonic Wars, a global history, OUP, 2020, p. 626-628.
(7) J. R. Aymes, La guerra de la Independencia, Milenio, Lleida, 2008, p. 390.


11 December 2020 (English translation 14 April 2021)


Other episodes of “Napoleon, the dark side” :

► The human cost of the Napoleonic wars (< 3 min. read)

Napoleon and the colonies (< 3 min. read)

► Napoleon’s re-establishement of slavery (< 2 min. read)

► Napoleon and Santo Domingo (Haïti and Santo Domingo) (< 4 min. read)

► Napoleon and Guadeloupe (< 2 min. read)

Did Napoleon enact “genocide” in the French colonies? (< 3 min. read)

► Napoleon and women (< 4 min. read)

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